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International Exchange of Ideas in Aesthetics, Philosophy, and Literature

THE HUMANITIES AT WORK

Advisors (Nepal)
Shreedhar Prasad Lohani, Tribhuvan University Govinda Raj Bhattarai, Tribhuvan University Krishna Chandra Sharma, Tribhuvan University Arun Gupto, Tribhuvan University

Yubraj Aryal

Advisors (USA)
William L. McBride, Purdue University David E. Schrader, University of Delaware Charles Bernstein, University of Pennsylvania Johanna Druker, University of Virginia

Sunlight Publication
Kathmandu 2008

Dedicated to Marjorie Perloff whose ideas have influenced my own notion of art and aesthetics. PUBLISHED BY SUNLIGHT PUBLICATION Kathmandu. No reproduction of any parts may take place without the written permission of the editor or Sunlight Publication.: 977-01-4330632. Yubraj The Humanities at Work Computer: Sahadev Maharjan. It is subject to statutory exception and the provision of relevant collective licensing agreements. 4332953 First Edition: 2000 copies © Yubraj Aryal 2008 This book is copyright. First Published 2008 Cataloging-in-Publication Data Aryal. Nepal Tel. 4331173 Printed in Nepal .

Marxism from its inception has an intrinsic feature that has assisted its influence in present-day academia: its – 231 – – 232 – Tyrus Miller Tyrus Miller is Professor of Literature and Provost of Cowell College at University of California at Santa Cruz. and Marxism as a general method of cultural and social analysis. Antonio Gramsci. Although there is a history of Marxist politics in the United States.. sociology. and Fredric Jameson–offers academics a way of linking culture. Fiction and the Arts Between the World Wars and Singular Examples: Artistic Politics of the Neo-Avantgarde (forthcoming). . There are probably many more academics who would profess to utilize Marxist theory or "historical materialism" in studying literature. has not disappeared so much as it has become broadly diffused in a range of humanities and social science disciplines in the universities. detached. POETICS. social structures. and history in a coherent and unifying framework. anthropology. than would claim to be attempting to build a socialist society or to serve a socialist movement. on the one hand. Marxism–especially the less orthodox versions that take inspiration from its most original thinkers from Georg Luk‫ل‬cs. and Walter Benjamin to Louis Althusser. ART AND AESTHETICS 25. in large part. Art and Aesthetics Yubraj Aryal: What space has been occupied by Marxism in the recent American academia? Are Marx and Engels still read in the United States? Tyrus Miller: It's probably first useful to distinguish between Marxism as a particular ideology of socialist states and movements. Poetics.B. popular culture. from its immediate activist implications or the direct political links to a movement or state that it once had. Marxism. Moreover. however. this has been in decline since the 1980s. and there was a resurgence of activist interest in Marxism with the wave of political movements of the 1960s and 1970s. etc. Marxism. He is the author of Late Modernism: Politics. Theodor Adorno.

as was characteristic of the quotations from Marx. In the broadest sense. sociologist. economics. art and aesthetics. by Stalin in the 1930s–there are also many instances in which avant-garde artists identified themselves with a strain of political vanguardism. As he memorably said in The Communist Manifesto. But it would be historically inaccurate and oversimplifying to conclude that Marxism and modernism are therefore intrinsically opposed. Marx himself was a great autodidact. musicologist.: As you note in mentioning an important debate. M. Adorno was an avant-garde composer. How would you relate Marxist aesthetics (please focus on Brecht-Luk‫ل‬cs debate on aesthetics) with its general theory? How does Marxian aesthetic share with Hegelian aesthetic consciousness of totality? T. Lenin. a decade when Marxism was in upsurge. or more anarchist and utopian. M. Y." as there is a network of arguments and debates. Marx. Sartre. but primarily in a historical light rather than as theoretical authorities. How would you assess the claim at least from your study of 1930s. Luk‫ل‬cs was a major literary critic as well as philosopher.: Marxism is a potential force of modernity. and moral values. whether explicitly Marxist. In their own reflections on how Marxism might inform their studies. A. the Frankfurt School. history. "All that is solid melts into air. Y. not to mention the cynical bureaucratic manipulations of official communist politics. Is this really so different as Ezra Pound's imperative to "Make it new.interdisciplinary scope. in his view." and this made it. I think that it is possible to distinguish between two major strains of – 234 – .: Let me take you to the Marxist view on literature. in the writings of communist bloc writers in the most diverse fields. It is true that the utopianism and anarchistic streak of rebellious artists has often come into conflict with the pragmatic goals of practical Marxist movements. incumbent for the working class to invent a radically new order of culture. Mao.. A. and to a lesser extent Engels. Moreover." or Virginia Woolf's view that "In or about 1910. and culture under the influence of industrialism. when social forces of mass politics and new media challenged the cultural foundations of the modernist movement? T. empirical psychologist. as you suggest. Both responded critically to the condition of capitalist modernity–that – 233 – uprooting and dissolution of traditional structures of society. there is not so much a single "Marxist aesthetic. I would say that Marxism and modernism (or avant-garde) were parallel and often complementary phenomena. these thinkers offer present-day academics practical models of how to bring together disciplinary knowledges in mutually illuminating ways. However. Many figures in the Marxist tradition show a similar interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary scope: Gramsci was a trained philologist and linguist as well as an original political thinker. human nature changed"? Both Marx and the great modernist writers were animated by that dual sense of anxiety about the loss of traditional boundaries and exhilaration at the task of inventing something completely new (or at least free of conventional restrictions). even literature and art to some extent. etc. the influence of Marxism today resides most likely less in the works of Marx and Engels and more in the so-called "Western Marxist" and "New Left" thinkers of the twentieth-century: Luk‫ل‬cs. Marx can be understood as a "modernist" thinker. Gramsci.: If I've understood your question correctly. and philosopher. politics. However. I don't believe you would find in many quarters reference to Marx and Engels as gospel authority. despite the anti-avantgarde cultural politics of the official communist world–imposed. politics. are still read in the United States. authority. and so on. who brought together in a unique interdisciplinary mixture the study of philosophy. Stalin.

For Luk‫ل‬cs. but attempts to model experience in fresh. They tend to see the artwork as a critical perspective on which the shortcomings of collective experience in contemporary society can be comprehended. in turn. represented by Brecht. including ideological arguments about their political implications. In a sense. Luk‫ل‬cs saw in the well-formed artwork a kind of microcosm of the Hegelian totality. these thinkers have close relations to artistic practice: Benjamin was a gifted literary writer and translator. In the artistic tendency that Brecht represented–connected to agitational literature and documentary–the work of art should communicate social facts and offer commentaries on them. which resided for him exclusively in the social world. but they held different views of the relation of artistic form to the artwork's educative function. strictly speaking. – 235 – I should also mention here a third strain of Marxist aesthetics that falls neither into the Luk‫ل‬cs or the Brecht position. falls on the work of art as a fictional context of instructive examples and as a space in which. For Luk‫ل‬cs. we can derive lessons that inform our social activities. in the more sophisticated theories that are important here. the notions of base and superstructure were often applied in crude ways. Brecht was satisfied to see the work as an instrument and a fragment of that totality. Both aesthetics presupposed that fostering political change in the direction of socialism was the ultimate goal. A. more intense. which is affected by social and technological change in modern society. but sees the work of art in more instrumental terms: as a pedagogical and agitational tool. not in the artwork itself. especially those of Walter Scott. and Tolstoy. this educative process couldn't take place if the "world" of the artwork was not well-formed and thoroughly articulated in fictive. These are not just formalistic exercises. ideological error. as a model of an alternative experience that would be fuller. roughly aligned with the positions Luk‫ل‬cs and Brecht took in the 1930s. this justifies the search. The second view. and freer. Notably." which allows us to understand human agency and human action in a narratively or imagistically clarified form. even utopian ways. M. However. for new expressive forms and new contents. That is the Frankfurt School orientation. Kluge is a major author and filmmaker The experiential possibilities of modernist art stand in close relation to their theoretical views. for Brecht.: In the more official versions of Marxism.Marxist aesthetics. Although there are great differences among these different thinkers. "exemplary" and "activist. Balzac. in shorthand. we can carry this understanding out into our larger lives and apply the lessons and examples learned there. or passivity. Theodor Adorno. by observing literary characters and their actions." The first view puts the emphasis on the work of art or literature as a representative historical and political "microcosm. and of socio-historical conditions? In what way? Why not in otherwise way? T. to suggest that artworks were "just" ideology. and more recently Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt. Y. artistic terms. artistic form should take shape according to the educative tasks and audience of the work.: How does Marxist interpretation of art interlink the idea of illusion and reality with the idea of ideology? Should aesthetic be so heavily informed by ideology? How far does aesthetics speak to. The emphasis. To put it otherwise. by modernist and avant-garde artists. he found this model social world in the realist and historical novel of the 19th century. Marxist aesthetics attempts to account for the specific material – 236 – . they share a focus on the concept of experience. I'll call these. however. and. including Walter Benjamin. alternative. flight from reality. Adorno was a trained classical composer. also puts the emphasis on educating social agents. often. "Fiction" or "the aesthetic" came to be synonyms for illusion. "mere reflections" of the real economic conditions.

: If we study the "European Realism" seen by Luk‫ل‬cs in Tolstoy. in their fictional – 237 – works. surrealist fancies.: As I mentioned earlier. this possibility should neither be ignored or treated as if it were somehow irrelevant to the "true" aesthetic nature of the artwork. and in fact. Y. that my new kitchen appliance or my new t-shirt is a work of art. the red one over the blue one. following Adorno. see their relation to mimetic realism as "negative. "Aesthetics"–particularly in our time–may comprehend a much larger domain of experience than experiences related to art: for example. Art and ideology are a complex compound. it is worth mentioning that "art" and "aesthetics" may not always designate equal domains. but they also have social functions and effects. One might. Such ideas are implicitly rejected by the modernist writers who explore the stream of consciousness. The best Marxist aesthetics keeps both these dimensions in view. and set of artifacts) and the effects it can have on individuals and society. one of the social functions a work can carry out is ideological expression. and I exercise aesthetic judgment in choosing. Luk‫ل‬cs saw the realist novel as a kind of model society in miniature. Hence. institution. I think. Realist novels–however massive and complex." To what extent do you find modernist writers justified in their critique of mimetic – 238 – . on these interesting and intelligent grounds. since. Gorky etc. Luk‫ل‬cs thus thought that with respect to the domain of character and action that the realist novel could play a role analogous to that of social and political theory: taming the empirical messiness and complexity of social phenomena. Y. Maupassant. An art work shouldn't be reduced merely to a cipher of an ideology. and the task of Marxist aesthetics is live up to the complexity of that relation. Artworks and art practices have. as it were. How do their realist works offer moral support for the kind of revolution that Marxism feels to be a historical necessity? Putting differently. say. A. and existential emotions. in order to allow human individuals and collectives to gain mastery over their shared world.: Marxist reflectionist ideas of literature and art assume a direct correlation of material structure and representation. at least implicitly. We can wrap our minds around them much more easily than we can in the essentially more amorphous and boundless space of our real lives.nature of art (as practice. As for the bigger picture of aesthetics in relation to sociohistorical conditions. psychological depths. Chekhov. where it was possible to see characters relating to social situations in ways that were more comprehensible than in everyday life. like Tostoy's War and Peace–have discernable boundaries and limits that allow the novelist to organize relations between characters in terms of coherent narratives. despite the fact that Jeff Koons has displayed toasters as art objects in museums and T-shirts are made from Barbara Kruger art texts. and nevertheless. We perhaps underestimate how much our acceptance and even enjoyment of consumer design aesthetics has broader social effects–helping to maintain and expand a social order based on global consumerism. it seems that they were employing. M. how would you assess Marxism and realism in European social literary history? T. our aesthetic feelings play a big role in things like consumer and lifestyle choices. he was able to make the somewhat implausible argument that the 19th-century novel was a crucial instrument in the historical movement of the working class. the structure of a work helps or hinders it from carrying out its social function. a "reflectionist" mimetic concept of art. however. No one would attempt to claim. say. my non-art appliances and t-shirt have been designed to shape and please my taste. accounts for their relationship: how. A. an internal logic and consistency.

A. because of their sophisticated engagement with psychoanalysis and theories of language. I find the Frankfurt School helpful. However. and to what extent is Marxism justified in its criticism of modernist anti-realism? T. to be called a formalist was a sinister prelude to removal from public life and even disappearance into Stalin's secret prisons and gulags. in my view.: What relationship does Marxism have with formalism? In other words. T. physical stimuli such as blood pressure and digestion may be translated in the dream into images and narratives having nothing to do with their physical "cause." so too the connection of "base" and "superstructure" is not one of – 240 – . this doesn't of itself invalidate the insights of modernism or make legitimate an overly schematic. I definitely agree. The dialogue of Marxism and modernism is more complex.. and too often in the Marxist context.S. though few of them– with the partial exception of Adorno–would have understood or described themselves as "formalists. either Marxism or modernism is correct. Benjamin." in the sense in which I've defined it. etc. recognized that this dialectical space of form was a key index to the historical forces shaping the work of art and one of the most important ways in which art articulates its social message and brings about social effects in its viewers (or listeners or readers. M. One sense has to do with the role that specific properties of the medium and artistic material play in shaping the structure and sensual properties of the work.S. the cult of violence. reflectionist theory of knowledge.).R.: One can't answer this with a straightforward either-or response. there were many aspects of modernist and avant-garde writing that led in the direction of politically and morally problematic views of human action.realism. Georg Luk‫ل‬cs as an intelligent critical opponent–to develop Marxism in more flexible. M. The best Marxist critics. belief. and sophisticated interpreters of "form. Therefore. In the 1930s in the U. Just as in the dreaming body. Walter Benjamin.: Individual psychology and collective consciousness often do not conform to the socio-material interaction. A. critical ways. for example." they were nonetheless attentive. Ernst Bloch. M. then modernism was not just artistically important. The reflectionist view was never sufficiently nuanced to provide Marxism with either a credible social epistemology or a sensitive theory of literature and art. and the legitimation of authoritarian politics on both the right and left of the political spectrum.: Yes. explored the analogy of dreams as a model for understanding how material conditions and cultural expressions relate. and society. This figural space in which material and meaning dialectically interact–dynamically and through contradiction and conflict–offers a precise sense of artistic "form" in a Marxist understanding. but socially and theoretically as well. it was simply a term of denunciation against any – 239 – artistic deviation or play of imagination not disciplined to the party line. various primitivist and atavistic fantasies. formalism also has certain more precise meanings as well. Y. nor was this aesthetic derived from it capable of comprehending a large portion of the most important writers and works of art of the twentieth century. detailed. Althusser. Again. However. Would you not agree? T. how does Marxism treat the concept of "'Form'"? How does such concept elucidate the meaning of "dialectical" criticism? Please focus on Adorno. ie.: Formalism has a lot of different meanings in the history of modern aesthetics. Clearly. Insofar as modernism spurred some thinkers– Walter Benjamin. including asocial views of the psyche. Lukacs and Sartre. Theodor Adorno as advocates of modernism. Y.

and especially since the fall of the official communist bloc after 1989.P. but is rather a new reflexivity about itself that includes an acknowledgement that the West cannot define. and aesthetically avant-garde alternative to Marxism. it must – 242 – . and so on. A. This included the rising complexity and differentiation of contemporary societies. Here I'm not speaking of postmodernism narrowly as a literary or artistic style. it is this that offers the possibility of contradiction.: Let me come down to postmodernism and Marxism. the encounter with multiple. Y. cultural studies. correct to see in this theoretical tendency a rejection of Marxism and the presentation of a left-wing. M. and postmodernism. was found by postmodernists to be no longer credible for a number of reasons.: I think it is a bit confusing to lump together poststructuralism. but conflictual frameworks for understanding society and culture. however. in my view. mostly French intellectual development. Postmodernism. and Eric Hobsbawm. remain indebted to Marxism. Post-structuralism derived from a fairly specific. reality shows. that certain key identifiable agents (classes) were its main motive forces. what setback poststructuralism gave to Marxism? It is often said that post-structuralism is a European weapon against Marxism? Do you believe postmodernism a regressive inclination of the west? Second. Hegelian-derived theory of "historical materialism" that canonical Marxism put forward as its banner. but the basic lines. and change. and considerations about linguistic and narrative representation that make the idea of history more problematically relative than previous generations of historians and historical theorists had appreciated. Although neither Marxism nor post-structuralism have been left intact by the changes in the world since the 1960s. Postmodernism encompasses poststructuralist and cultural studies. Martin Heidegger. E. The idea that History was one great story of mankind. since it was especially inspired by the historical and critical studies of three important British Marxists: – 241 – Raymond Williams. however. There is nothing intrinsically "postmodernist" about cultural studies views. only partially commensurable histories coexisting in a global space. resistance. newness.causation or mirroring. I do not think postmodernism is merely a regressive inclination of the West." Rather. including that totalizing. including its continuing use of a concept of class to explain cultural differences and its orientation towards culture produced and consumed by popular strata of society. Please tell me first." We might say that the non-conformity of culture and consciousness to given material conditions is precisely what interests the Frankfurt School. that it was heading in a single identifiable direction (progress or regress). represented an important challenge to Marxism from another direction. in which several very brilliant thinkers brought together theories of language and anthropology developed within the structuralist paradigm with the radical thought of three thinkers in particular: Sigmund Freud. anarchist-leaning. It is. but rather "expression" and "figuration. There are now many diversified tendencies in cultural studies. although cultural studies methods may be used to study such paradigmatically "postmodernist" cultural artifacts such as advertising. but as a wholescale discrediting of a range of comprehensive theories of history. together they represent two very powerful. on its own. Thompson. what legacy does cultural studies receive from Marxism? T. and so on. "world history" or even "Western history. and Friedrich Nietzsche. video games. Cultural studies has a fairly organic connection with Marxism.

changing.construct far more tentative.: Thank you for your kind participation in our interview project! T. as it accounts for the contributions and criticisms of other agents in the global arena." I prefer to see it as a major readjustment that is necessary and that can have positive benefits for knowledge and improved global exchange of views. Y.: Thank you! – 243 – – 244 – . A. in Spengler's famous words. M. and dialogic views of itself. Some may lament this as. the "decline of the West.